Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

“This is Cambodia time.”

Monday, January 7th, 2013

The phrase is repeated to me almost daily, as I am frequently reminded of the time difference: not only the obvious twelve hour difference between our clocks, but the very different mindset behind the seconds, the minutes, and the hours. As an economist, I am all too familiar with the “time is money” adage. Business decisions are formatted into long-run and short-run goals. We recognize and consider opportunity cost, or the value of our alternatives. All of these are constrained by the same important concept: time. Time is huge factor in our decision making; it  the most vital variable in our lives. “How long will it take?” “What time should I be there?” “How much will I make per hour?” Our days have been segmented into blocks since primary school: 7:55-8:10 Morning Announcements and Class Attendance, 8:15-9:05 Mathematics, 9:10-10:00 English, 10:05-10:55 Art, 11:00-11:50 History, 11:55-12:00 Bathroom Break, 12:05-12:35 Lunch, 12:40-1:10 Recess…. You get the idea. We are a people regimented by the clock, with events being components of time.

Nap time for a moto driver in Phnom Penh

Nap time for a moto driver in Phnom Penh

Enter Cambodia, where market stalls seem to be open from daybreak to well past sunset. Men routinely lounge about in hammocks come noon. Tuk tuk drivers negotiate fares based on the distance, uphill or downhill, traveled not whether it takes half a day to get there. Hardly anyone “clocks in” when they come to work. There is no overtime pay rate. It is not uncommon to spend an hour or more waiting for your order to come up in a restaurant. Here, time is not a commodity which can be spent, wasted, saved or given. Time cannot be easily converted into money, nor can the conversion be precisely quantified. Take, for example, a street-side fruit vendor. She may earn $2 for the day or she may earn $10. The number of hours she spent trying to sell her crops is irrelevant; the concept of an hourly wage would be completely alien

Fruit vendor

Fruit vendor

to her. She either sold lots of mangosteens or only a few. For Cambodians, time does not exist as an entity in itself; it is not imposed upon them. Rather, time is created. Daily life is made up of events, with time being a component of those events.

Differing religious backgrounds may factor into these contrasting cultural perceptions of time. Judeo-Christian societies understand time as linear or directional. It began with the creation of the world and it will advance until the second coming of the Messiah. In our mind’s eye, we view events chronologically and place them on a timeline. In Buddhist Cambodia, the human experience is cyclical, bound by the concept of samsara–the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Time is a spiral; it moves around and around with no definitive beginning or ending.

Not better, not worse, just different.

As always, please feel free to comment.

Driving in Cambodia

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

I have never seen so many motorcycles in one place before. In America, there is the stereotype that Asian peoples are the worst drivers. I feel that most stereotypes have a ring of truth to them.  I see some of that truth here in Cambodia.  Driving here is simultaneously the most active and passive daily event.  There are no stop signs, no right of way, minimal traffic lights.  Honking is serves as a warning of a vehicles presence.  It is the most unorganized, yet efficient mess I’ve ever seen.

I think part of it has to do with the atmosphere here in regards to driving.  People swerve and cut in and out of every space possible.  Did I mention there is no observance of lane space?  Cause there isn’t.  Everyone moves together: big trucks, fancy Mercedes, tuk tuks, motorcycles, and bicycles.  When you want to go somewhere against the flow of traffic you just do it.  You are patient with those in front of you and you don’t cut any one off.  Those coming against you slow down to let you pass as others cut around you in different directions.  This style of driving doesn’t work well in places like the U.S., where drivers are impatient, rude, and unnecessarily aggressive.  It does work well here however.

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Oh, and those motorcycles…they hold anywhere from one to five people (some adult some children, or infants) or hundreds of pounds of fresh fruit or brooms or ladders.  Whatever they can carry with them goes on the motorcycle.

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